Here’s your secret weapon to running faster and getting stronger without hitting the gym: hill sprints. By using short, powerful sprinting sessions you’ll build running strength in your legs, season your muscles and connective tissue, and see improvement in your endurance. All this from short, intense sessions on a hill! Read on for three form tips to keep in mind as you tackle the hills, and try out Coach Kirk’s favorite hill sprint workout.
No doubt about it, running hills requires a big output of effort and mental toughness. So why making it even more challenging by sprinting?
Just as exercises like squats and lunges build strength and power in our legs, hill sprints do the same with running-specific movement. As you run at maximum effort uphill, you’re driving your hips forward and exploding out of each step to propel up and forward. It’s very similar to the type of plyometric training you get through burpees, box jumps, and high knees.
Your bodyweight alone is enough of a load to reap the benefits of hill sprints, so leave that weighted vest at home. As you run uphill, not only are you moving your mass forward, but you’re also fighting a stronger pull against gravity that you would experience on flat ground. That extra bit of resistance can also help build strength as your muscles have to work harder, encouraging muscle growth.
Like any speed work, hill sprints can improve your conditioning and endurance. Sprinting, whether on flat ground or uphill, recruits more muscle fibers to hit that max speed. As those muscle fibers are repeatedly trained, not only to they grow in terms of helping you run faster and more efficiently, they also grow in endurance so you can run longer.
Not only that but speeding your way uphill requires deeper breathing than what you would normally experience running at an easier pace or on flat ground. Just like your legs will get used to those harder efforts, so will your breathing. Hill sprints will help you practice keeping your breath and heart rate under control during the hill sprints, as well as make your efforts at steady-state running feel easier when you’re out for a jog or an easy run.
At the end of the day, when you sprint through a pack of runners on the course or charge the crest of a hill on the trail, your body already knows what to do. Enjoy those benefits!
Yep, you heard that right. The nature of running uphill means that there is less distance between your foot and the ground with every step. This translates to a smaller amount of impact on your body, which adds up stride after stride. If you’ve ever done speed work on flat ground and felt beat up and stiff the next day, give hill sprints a shot and see if you notice a difference. The lower impact plus running on a softer surface of dirt or gravel is sure to be gentler on your body.
Additionally, by integrating tough speed work, you’re challenging and seasoning your tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue. Easy runs don’t put the same demand on your legs that sprinting does, so the stimulus of speed work will help condition them. Then, when you put on that burst of speed to pass a pack of runners or you’re squeaking out the last mile on your long run, you’re less likely to injure yourself by pulling a muscle or overdoing it because you’ll have given your body time to practice in training.
Running hill sprints doesn’t have to be complicated. There are just a few things about your run form that you’ll want to keep an eye on to maximize your effort and minimize your risk of injury or overdoing it.
When running up a hill, the temptation is to lean into the hill and grind your way up. Instead, focus on staying upright with your hips leading, rather than your head.
Staying tall will allow your glutes and hamstrings to take an active roll in propelling you uphill. Compare standing tall with a neutral pelvis and engaging your glutes with standing leaning forward and then trying to activate your booty. You’ll notice right away how much easier it is to engage your glutes while standing tall. That will translate to more power and efficiency when you’re actually on the hills and gaining speed.
Keep your cadence up! If you’re not sure what cadence is, simply put, it’s the number of times your foot hits the ground in a minute. Experienced runners like to hit about 180 steps per minute, no matter if they’re cruising on flat ground or running up an inclined.
Your cadence might be anywhere from 150-180. A higher cadence tends to be more efficient, but it takes practice and effort to increase your cadence. During hill sprints is definitely not the time to do it. So, whatever your cadence is on flat ground, stick with it. If you consistently run 170 steps per minute around the track, do that during your hill sprints.
The reason you don’t want to have your footfalls become slower is that it tends to take much more energy to bound from one long stride to the next than it does to quickly step forward with fast feet. It may seem like fewer steps are better, but this is the time to remember that mantra “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Float your way up with short, quick steps that match your current cadence, and your hill sprints will be over before you know it. Check out this tutorial if you’re looking for even more information about understanding and improving your cadence.
You probably notice your lower body more while running hill sprints since it’s your legs that are cranking out the work. But, think about how your upper body can compliment your running. Instead of just letting your arms swing weakly, focus on actively driving them back as you run uphill. This drive can help power your strides, just as a speed walker brings their arms up to move in time with their legs.
In addition to powering your stride, having an engaged upper body can also help counteract the rotation that occurs when you run. As your leg swings forward in a step, your upper body rotates the other way. This is totally normal and unavoidable. However, excess rotation can actually cause you to lose power and forward momentum. Enter the arm swing, which blunts the rotation of the upper body so you’re not wasting energy and stride power by wobbling side to side as you move.
Keep in mind, though, that an engaged upper body doesn’t mean everything has to be tense. If you spend a run with excess tension and your shoulders creeping up to facilitate your arm swing, that’s going to cancel out any benefit you might get from that extra drive.
The only thing you’ll need for this workout is a short hill with around a 5-8% incline. If you don’t have a suitable hill near you, feel free to use a treadmill to customize your hill training.
Here’s what you’re going to do:
After your last sprint, make sure you spend 5-10 minutes cooling down and recovering before finishing with some mobility. Here’s a five-minute follow-along cool down with Coach Holly:
Hill sprints will make all the difference in your training. Implement this running workout routine just once per week for some awesome, immediate benefits!
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